Faith and Science, as They Really Are (Part Two)

(Part Two of Faith and Science, as They Really Are; see Part One here.)


Some contend that science and religion occupy separate worlds, but from my perspective, neither the religious faithful or scientifically-minded folk do, or desire to, stay on their “halves” of the subdivided world.

For one, religion makes claims about the real, descriptive world. The Christian worldview says that in the beginning, God created the universe; that this same God created the Earth and all of its creatures; that the Earth once flooded over; that there was a man who lived in Nazareth named Jesus Christ. Religion even makes claims about the future of the world and the nature of the end times. (Though, regrettably, any observers of that validating event would be a little too late to the party!)

Each of the past events above either happened or did not happen. It really is that simple; there is a definite truth or falsity to each of those claims.

Of course, many of them are difficult to test, but so is testing the Big Bang or determining whether Julius Caesar was a real, living man. The same tools that we use in science can, and indeed have been used to test religious hypotheses about the real world (e.g., the historicity [i.e., historical evidence to determine the reality of] Jesus Christ is as good as the historicity of Julius Caesar).

And also, thinking now of “ought”: would believers really want to give up the right to talk about physical, descriptive, “scientific” evidence? Say that tomorrow, historians found fossils that confirmed the story of the flood. Would any sane Christian deny that evidence as descriptive, and therefore not of the domain of religion? Of course not. Religion is a moral system. But it also makes – and wants to make – claims about the descriptive truth of the world.

Similarly, while science primarily holds to its value-neutral assessment of the descriptive truth, it depends on, and desires to make, value-based prescriptive claims.

Science claims objectivity. Through the scientific method, science can supposedly divorce itself from guesswork and find the truth. But in reality – the real, messy world of science as it actually is – things aren’t that simple or clean.

This is true methodologically, for science can’t use its own tools to reflexively justify the way that it uses those tools. What objective standard can determine whether a sample is “large enough”? Or when a margin of error is “acceptable”? How to judge whether an experiment is rigorous enough? Or whether its assumptions were justified? Even more fundamentally, how can the tools of science guide which hypotheses are chosen to test in the first place? The easy way to resolve these dilemmas would be to say that such value judgements are non-scientific, but that would ignore that they’re the foundation of all scientific research. Although I admittedly have no experience in the matter, I’m sure that articles fail peer review every day for failing to subjective criteria like those above.

This is especially true when science turns to questions of events that cannot be repeated (e.g. the beginning of the universe; for who is to judge whether the conditions of the experiments are germane to the actual conditions of the original event?) – or for broader, metascientific discussions that play a large role in determining the current state of the scientific truth (e.g., determining when consensus is reached; because what about that one dentist that thinks Colgate doesn’t effectively fight plaque?).

It may be easy for science to shut itself off from these criticisms by saying that science is always a work in progress and that these questions don’t have sufficient answers – but that’s precisely my point. Science is not a closed system, descriptive and determined and true. Many of the most important decisions that scientists make are judgement calls, and necessarily fall outside the domain of deductive fact.

And, as with religion, I severely doubt that many scientists would wish for science to stay within its pre-ordained, descriptive world.

Many scientists research hypotheses typically considered the ground of morality: they study the evolution of groups of animals and whether they understand tit-for-tat; they explain the rise of morality in the human brain; they debate whether true altruism is possible. And, even more meaningfully, scientists often hope that their descriptive research enters into the prescriptive norms of society. Vaccines and global warming are the obvious examples, and in the future, science may even be asked to weigh in on other moral issues like abortion (when does a human life begin?).

Per the above, I think the claim that science and religion occupy two non-overlapping magisteria is, to be blunt, crazy talk. Neither one does stay fully within their proscribed domain in the real world, and neither one wants to. The only way to deny that argument – that I can see – is to allow each domain to think of itself only as it ought to be, rather than how it actually is. But to my mind, that’s unhelpful – because we live in the real world, not the world that ought to exist.

[Keep reading with Part Three here!]

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